A once-stalled reading program drops old rules and helps teachers who want more structure

With fingers and pencils, Destiny Wallace-Jenkins and Aiden Priest took turns prompting each other to pronounce what they saw on the page. K-i-n-g — king. S-l-a-m — slam.

“Don’t cover it up, Aiden. Let her see it,” teacher Allison Torrence said one December morning at the elementary school here. “Destiny, you get ready and point for Aiden. Okay. Put it together.”

Letters were becoming sounds, sounds were becoming words and these first-graders on the Eastern Shore were becoming readers through a program that has won a major grant from one of President Obama’s signature education initiatives. The money will help Success for All, as the program is known, expand across the country. Prince George’s County officials are strongly considering it for some of their low-performing schools.

Sponsored by a Baltimore foundation and used in about 1,000 schools, the program offers a case study not only in methods used to teach the most crucial academic skill but also in the shifting fashions of education reform.

Success for All trains teachers to follow a detailed playbook, with an emphasis on phonics at the start. The program stresses student collaboration, oral expression and frequent assessment to move children as fast as possible from one level of reading to another.

Students are assigned to teachers based on reading ability rather than age. When quarterly tests show the students have mastered a given level, they move on. Often they move to another room with another teacher.

That arrangement sets the program apart from the common practice of dividing students within a class into small groups of varying skill levels.

In another departure from the norm, Success for All lays out what educators call unusually explicit, step-by-step guidance for lessons. That means, for instance, that the alphabet chant for beginning students and the “fast-track” phonics lessons are likely to sound the same from room to room. Schools are also required to show staff support before they adopt the program. At least 75 percent of teachers must approve it through a secret ballot.

“The potential attraction is, it gives you a proven structure to deliver reading instruction,” said Duane Arbogast, chief academic officer for Prince George’s schools. “When you have a staff that’s struggling with structure, Success for All provides that.”

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution scholar who oversaw education research in the George W. Bush administration, said Success for All has been extensively studied. “The evidence is that it improves reading achievement for children in younger grades,” Whitehurst said.

Launched in 1987, Success for All spread across the country in high-poverty schools during the first Bush and Clinton administrations as a model for what was then known as “comprehensive school reform.” Its growth stalled somewhat in the past decade when President George W. Bush promoted an initiative called Reading First that steered federal aid toward other programs.

Success for All’s co-founder, Johns Hopkins University education scholar Robert E. Slavin, contends that Reading First was biased toward certain curriculum providers. Bush officials, who faced numerous complaints about the management of Reading First, denied the charge of favoritism.

Under Obama, Success for All seems poised to take off again. Plans call for doubling the program’s footprint, to more than 2,000 schools, through a five-year, $50 million grant it won last summer from a fund created under the 2009 economic stimulus law.

The $650 million Investing in Innovation fund reflects Obama’s effort to provide venture capital for education. Rarely has the U.S. Education Department dispensed so much seed money for school reform.

Other major recipients included Teach for America and the Knowledge is Power Program charter school network. Montgomery County schools won a $5 million grant for curriculum development.

James H. Shelton III, an assistant deputy secretary of education who oversees the fund, said the aim is to “take the politics out of any decision-making about what programs we put in front of our kids. Performance and evidence ought to speak for themselves and drive decision-making from the federal to the most local level.”

Some educators say the training required for Success for All is too costly — an issue the grant seeks to address. Others say it is too scripted. Slavin rejects that criticism. “What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is to apply, every day with every teacher, practices that are proven to be effective.”

Detroit, one of the nation’s lowest-performing school systems, plans to start the program in four elementary schools. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the city’s chief academic and accountability auditor, said she hopes it will help spark “a revolutionary culture change.”

At Grasonville Elementary School, where about 30 percent of the 475 students come from families poor enough to qualify for meal subsidies, Success for All is credited with helping students achieve perennially strong reading test scores. The Queen Anne’s County school, just east of Kent Narrows, began the program in 1997. Veteran teachers recall that at the start it seemed regimented, down to the minute.

“They walked us through exactly what every component should look like,” Torrence said. Now, teachers say, they have more flexibility.

Still, a walk through several classrooms in mid-December found a high level of organization. Students in first through fifth grade shifted, at intervals, from their homerooms into 90-minute literacy classes. Beginners (generally first-graders) were in classes called “Roots,” the rest in “Wings.” Each class was tailored to a given skill level.

Detailed descriptions of daily objectives were posted outside the rooms. Example: “Use elements of narrative text to facilitate understanding. . . . Identify and explain character traits and actions.”

Beginners, including Destiny and Aiden, paired off to help each other on the teacher’s cue. They spent half an hour on phonics and then shifted to lessons geared to stories, story telling, retelling, comprehension and thematic writing.

Teacher Debbie Sparks guided more advanced students — all fifth-graders — through analysis of a nonfiction text on dinosaurs. Students formed groups of four for “team talk” to discuss scientific theories on why the dinosaurs died out. Then they gave their findings to the class — another of many examples of the emphasis on oral language development — and were awarded points for the quality of their presentations.

A major advantage of the program, teachers said: It enables them to work directly with students for long stretches of time. That would not necessarily be the case if teachers were juggling small groups of varying ability within one classroom.

“When it stops being successful for us, we will look for a better tool,” said Roberta D. Leaverton, the principal. “So far, it’s been successful.”